A blunder by British forces in Iraq allowed al Qaida’s top commander in the country to escape, according to secret war logs controversially leaked into the public domain.
An operation to capture Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian associate of Osama bin Laden, collapsed in March 2005 when a British helicopter ordered to monitor him ran out of fuel and had to return to base, the logs revealed by WikiLeaks suggest.
The Observer newspaper, which reported the alleged incident, said the mistake probably allowed Zarqawi an extra 15 months to expand al Qaida’s operations throughout Iraq, bringing the country close to civil war.
His fundamentalist Sunni supporters were behind some of the worst atrocities aimed at Iraq’s Shia majority population as well as countless attacks on US and Iraqi government forces.
Their bombing of a sacred golden-domed Shia shrine in Samarra in February 2006 led to a wave of revenge killings that lasted for a year and a half, the newspaper reported.
He was eventually located by the Americans in a house north of Baghdad in June 2006 and killed with his family by a US air strike.
The logs report that on March 17 2005 the G3 cell of army intelligence at British brigade headquarters in Basra heard that Zarqawi was travelling south on route 6 from Amara to Basra.
At 2.45pm, the report says, a Lynx helicopter spotted a suspicious car that had stopped nine miles south of Qurna and about 60 miles north of Basra.
The report says the helicopter maintained “top cover” for 15 minutes but then had to return to the British-run Shaiba logistics base to refuel. British special forces and an American “arresting officer” were brought in, but having lost their helicopter cover the forces were reduced to random searching.
Unlike many other reports in the logs, this one makes no comment on the the source of the intelligence and its reliability, The Observer notes. But if Zarqawi was in the suspicious car, the near-miss was “hugely expensive”, the newspaper adds.